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Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living. - Robert Mondavi

Select Wine At a Restaurant When You're the Host

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

With so many great restaurants to choose from, every San Franciscan knows that a restaurant becomes a favorite from much more than the quality of the food. When you shell out the cash for the dining-out experience, you are investing in the restaurant’s aura, vibe, aesthetic and sensual qualities, the people who surround you, in short, the overall experience of the meal before, during and after the food has actually been consumed. And every great restaurant experience is a celebration that also requires great wine. Whether you are on a date, entertaining a client, hosting your family or friends who are visiting - inevitably, at some point, you will be faced with the daunting task of seizing the reins and ordering wine for the table. Below are some tips to look like a pro even if you’re not:
Step One: Before you even open the wine list, assess the needs of your fellow diners. Ask if everyone drinks wine and if anyone has an aversion to red, white or sparkling. In general, unless guests have already enjoyed cocktails in the bar, dinner is starting late, or the number of guests at your table numbers three or less, I’d recommend starting with a light sparkling wine (by the bottle or glass depending on your table size) to be enjoyed during appetizers and the first course. Most people love sparkling wine; it’s festive and light, and tends to pair well with crisp, salty appetizers.
Step Two: Everyone has a glass of bubbly and is browsing the dinner menu. Now is the time that you really begin to peruse the wine list to select the perfect wine to be served with dinner. Inquire about what your fellow diners think they will be ordering for their main course. Unless all guests have ordered fish and fowl, if one or more guests has ordered a red meat for their entrée, I’d recommend ordering a red wine to serve with dinner.
Step Three: Depending on the caliber of the restaurant, there may or may not be a sommelier available to assist you in your selection. If there is a sommelier, I always like to consult with them over the selection.
Once the sommelier has made it to your table, select a couple of wines in your price range that you are interested in and point to these wines on the list (usually a high price range option and a lower one). Telling the sommelier what your guests plan on ordering with dinner, ask which of these he or she recommends or if there is another comparable wine that he or she would suggest. This allows you to show the somm your comfortable price point without the awkwardness of discussing price in front of your guests. If there is no sommelier at the restaurant, light red wines, such as Pinot Noir, are a good safe bet and tend to pair well with most foods, fish, fowl or meat. Pinot Noir will enhance the taste of almost any food, is recognized and enjoyed by most and is flavorful and balanced yet not overpowering.
Step Four: Once your bottle of wine has been brought to the table, you will have the task of deciding whether or not the wine is acceptable. After observing the bottle and making sure that it is of the proper vintage, many people think smelling the cork is a good indicator of the wine’s quality. This act really tells you little about the wine, so take a look at the cork, place it to the side, and then focus your efforts smelling, swirling and tasting the wine itself. If the wines smells good, (no aroma of sulfer, mold or rotten egg) and tastes good, tell the sommelier that the wine is “healthy”. This is the universal indicator that gives the sommelier permission to pour wine for your guests. While every once in a while you may get a bad bottle of wine in a restaurant, keep in mind the only ethical reason to send a wine back is if it is truly tainted, (i.e. corked, oxidized, etc.). So is you are unsure whether or not you will like a particular varietal or style of wine, save your experimentation for your casual wine bar nights when you can order by the glass, not the bottle and err on the safer side when ordering a bottle for a group.
One last note: Restaurants tend to double or triple the wholesale cost of wine, so as often as possible, stick to the less expensive options on the list to avoid feeling like you were held up in a highway robbery when you discover what you could have purchased the wine for at the store. Wine lists, especially those in San Francisco, are selected with care and with the menu options of the restaurant in mind, so usually all options are going to be delicious and pair well with the cuisine and will be pleasantly drinkable at worst. And if you must have a truly special bottle of wine, it usually makes more sense to bring your own bottle (purchased wholesale, or previously cellared) and paying the corkage fee (which is usually between $10 and $30) as that is considerably less than the markup on the same bottle purchased off the list.

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